Devina Lopez didn't think she'd make it to college. Her working-class, first-generation parents grew up in immigrant families from Mexico and Nicaragua. They "barely made it through high school," says Lopez, and her twin sister, older brother, and various cousins dropped out before earning diplomas.
"In my family," she adds, "it was about getting a job and making a living, not pursuing goals of higher education."
When given some encouragement at school, however, Lopez started to think differently. "I began taking myself seriously in terms of my academic achievement," she says, thanks to an interdisciplinary program called the Puente Project.
Launched in 1981 at Chabot College, in Hayward, California, the Puente Project is now run by the Office of the President at the University of California, headquartered in Oakland. It has grown to support underserved students -- primarily Latinos -- in 35 state high schools by presenting a core subject, such as preparatory English, and supplemental learning in a culturally relevant context. By her sophomore year at James Logan High School, in nearby Union City, Lopez had set her sights on an undergraduate degree.
Though she struggled with math and faced challenges in her personal life, Lopez finished high school. Now the 19-year-old is enrolled in her third year at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Though Lopez says she pushed herself to finish high school, she credits the Puente Project for steering her to college. "I felt like I could do it because they believed in me, and it helped me believe in myself."
Programs that support the academic achievement of underserved students -- including Puente and other national programs like it, such as MESA, GEAR UP, and AVID -- are expected to become increasingly necessary in our public schools as the population of minority students soars.
The number of Latino students in U.S. public schools nearly doubled between 1990 and 2006 -- and by 2020, one in four will be Latino, up from one in eight just 19 years ago, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. This growth has led scholars from New York University's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development to argue that harnessing these students' "energy, optimism, and faith in the future is in everyone's interest" and "one of the most important challenges to our country's democratic promise."
How, exactly, to go about realizing this vision has been much debated. Historically, educators have focused on overcoming barriers by developing ways of teaching English as a second language. But a decade from now, the vast majority of Latino students -- 89 percent -- will be native speakers.
"The growth among Hispanic students is going to be among the second generation and higher, so it's not just about English-language acquisition," says Richard Fry, a senior researcher at the Pew Hispanic Center. The ongoing shift from heavily immigrant to primarily native-born children means schools must address other issues, particularly poverty and cultural identity.
A significant number -- 28 percent -- of Hispanic public school students live at or below the poverty level, says Fry. (This figure compares with 11 percent of white students.) Notes Richard Verdugo, a senior research scientist at the National Education Association, "If you control for everything else, the most important predictor of achievement is socioeconomic status."
Beyond filling any language gaps, schools need to work on building what Verdugo refers to as students' social capital, developing their sense of self, and offering them culturally relevant curriculum -- all of which are crucial to Latino students' academic success. "It's important for students to have the sense that their ancestors, or members of their cultural group, have been important players in the country they're living in," Verdugo says. "It creates greater bonding to the educational system and to American culture."
"There can be a real lack of understanding of what the Latino experience is about," adds Miren Uriarte, a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts, in Boston. "We have to provide the space for teachers and principals to talk about these issues."
English as a First Language
For the past 16 years, the Puente program has strived to boost the academic achievement of underserved Latino high school students, who have the highest dropout rate and lowest college attendance among all racial and ethnic groups in the United States. From 1998 to 2007, more than 3,000 graduates of the Puente program have been accepted by four-year colleges, a rate one-third higher than that of Latino students with similar socioeconomic and academic backgrounds who attend the same California public schools but aren't enrolled in Puente.
"What Puente has been very successful at doing is taking students at their current level and maximizing their potential," notes a 2002 special issue of Educational Policy dedicated to evaluating the state-funded program. Puente (the name means "bridge" in Spanish) succeeds because it fills the gaps in cultural capital and competency, evaluators say. It provides basic information about college that middle-class families take for granted and doesn't shy away from broaching issues of race.
The high school program replaces the standard ninth- and tenth-grade English classes not with English as a Second Language instruction but with a special college-preparatory course taught by the same teacher for two years. The literacy-intensive curriculum is partially based on the best practices developed by the National Writing Project, and it combines required state standards with literature by Latinos and other writers of color.
Puente students, a mix of high-performing and low-performing students of all races, often spend a portion of every class reading and responding to the literature curriculum through personal narratives or an analysis essay. They are also taught to provide constructive feedback to each other by peer editing their classmates' work.
Puente administrators have been approached about training non-California schools in using its model. The full program costs about $1 million per year to serve some 4,000 students (about $250 per student). But Jane Pieri, director of high school programs and training, says educators everywhere can replicate components of the English curriculum. For example, providing students with the same teacher and classmates in both ninth grade and tenth grade "cuts out weeks of the getting-to-know-you, so the teacher can build on that existing community," Pieri says.
Teachers can also adopt the Puente perspective of empowering students through choice and culturally relevant reading assignments. "Have them do research that is real to them," Pieri says, "and give them choice about what they write and read."
The other key component to Puente is its guidance counselor, who takes an exceptionally active role in the academic lives of students. The counselor visits the English class at least once a week to provide information about how to qualify for college. For juniors and seniors, some counselors coordinate a zero period before school so students can take practice tests or work on college applications.
The counselor also arranges regular visits to nearby universities, and the Puente English teacher often accompanies students on these field trips and generates writing assignments related to the visit.
For example, a teacher at Hayward's Mt. Eden High School had her students interview college students about their experience during the trip and read articles about the school. Back in class, students had to prepare a how-to guide to getting into college for their non-Puente peers and draft a business letter to the university inquiring about requirements for a specific major.
Securing funding for guidance counselors can be the most challenging aspect of implementing the program. But Oksana Florescu, Puente's counseling-training coordinator, says regular visits to the classroom by someone who mentors students and provides information about college are crucial.
Program evaluations and student feedback support Florescu's stance. "My counselor was a huge, huge part of my high school life," former Puente participant Devina Lopez says. "She advised us on classes to take, and she would always check up on us."
Lopez adds that Puente provided her with a community of motivated peers and resources she wouldn't have otherwise known how to access, which helped her navigate her way to graduation and college. "They were a huge support and influence on how I view myself and my potential," she says of her Puente friends, teacher, and counselor.
Lopez notes that one challenge of being a Latina student was combating stereotypes that she wasn't smart enough or that she couldn't possibly want to go to college -- negative messages she believes affected her siblings. Lopez says Puente gave her the confidence to ignore these labels, which research confirms can be damaging to student performance.
"Stereotypes definitely came up in conversation in Puente, and we definitely talked about it with our counselor," Lopez says. "Puente supported us and told us that we could do it. So I decided to ignore it."
Bernice Yeung is a contributing editor for Edutopia.